Thursday, June 18, 2009

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

After reviewing Warren Ellis and John Cassidy’s standalone crossover comic Planetary/Batman: Night on Earth, I figured it was high time I checked out Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.  To say this graphic novel is a masterpiece of the genre is understating it—it is of the best the genre has to offer and one of the best works of fiction of the last quarter of a century.

Published in 1986, the same year as Alan Moore’s Watchmen, it was a time when the rules of superhero literature changed.  DKR marks a “turning point” in the genre, yes; but, as Dave Wallace (no, not David Foster Wallace) explains in his review for Comics Bulletin, “it's also such a significant milestone in the history of Batman that it has cast a shadow over all subsequent interpretations of the character.”  In fact, in his introduction to Miller’s book, Moore expresses a similar notion when he writes “[Miller] has taken a character whose every trivial and incidental detail is graven in stone on the hearts and minds of the comic fans that make up his audience and managed to dramatically redefine that character without contradicting one jot of the character's mythology... Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it's all totally different.”

How so?  Well, Miller tells the story not of Batman’s coming up in the ranks as Gotham’s finest hero, but of “The Batman,” who has already risen and has moved on.  When the story begins, the Dark Knight’s 55-year-old alter ego, Bruce Wayne, retired his suit a decade before following the death of the second Robin, Jason Todd, for which he cannot forgive himself for his part.  However, Gotham City has since gone to Hell as a heat wave brings with it tension and increased crime.  Obsessed with his own death, Wayne finds it ever more difficult to ignore the Bat’s nagging voice telling him that he is needed back on the streets.

The pressure becomes too much one night when Wayne relives the slaying of his parents when he catches The Mask of Zorro on TV, the movie he watched with his parents that night, and the image of his mother’s pearl necklace breaking (Miller’s addition to the character’s “bat-story”) comes back up to the surface.  Changing stations brings only more images of violence, highlighting words like crisis, attack, deaths, rape, and mutilation (24) and in a section that expertly illustrates his subject’s anxiety the wings start to flutter.

At first, the reader, like the eyewitness accounts in this passage, only gets glimpses of the ten-year dormant hero while people debate his existence, until Miller’s larger-than-life rendition jumps down on the scene, first to battle the supposedly reformed Harvey “Two-Faced” Dent, who is on his own agenda, that culminates at the end of  “Book One” in a creepy, 9/11ish “face-off” on one of Gotham’s Twin Towers, rigged, apparently, by the Joker’s henchmen with explosives to topple the buildings.

Next, in “Book Two,” Batman takes on a gang of anarchist criminals known as “The Mutants,” who are led by a maniac who is “a kind of evil we never dreamed of” (77).  These guys don’t really have a plan like Dent say and their only goal is to kill making them unpredictable and free to act in any way the story sees fit unlike the villains that have their own set of standards.  Batman, getting his own personal ass handed to him by the Mutant leader, receives some unexpected assistance from a new incarnation of the Boy Wonder, when a very young girl wearing that ridiculous outfit whom he saved in the previous chapter jumps on the foe’s back allowing Batman to take back the advantage.  By writing in this sort of young and innocent sidekick, Miller takes advantage of the character to explore reckless side of the Caped Crusader for his questionable decisions, in this case training a nimble little girl for his army of vigilantes

Gotham’s new, anti-Batman commission, who replaces the always extremely pro-Batman Gordon, has taken it upon herself to end the masked hero’s run of crime fighting, picking up on this endangering aspect of a decidedly do-it-yourself-attitude.  Not only has the city’s highest police official turned against him, but through a devastating media campaign, the public has as well.  With his satirical portrayal of nightly “news” programs, Miller digs into the questions of credibility that arise when a society is fed its news from both a biased viewpoint, a strangely accurate parody of Fox News’s “Fair and Balanced,” and the bias of the medium itself.  A striking example of his critique at work deals with media coverage on a few of the individuals inspired by Batman to take action against the world they see as broken.  The first in the series of incidents shows a man who starts shooting up a porn theater after he got canned from his job.  Detailing his inner thoughts, Batman is never mentioned, but on-air, the killings become “Batman-inspired” (89).  Then, after a mental defect dresses like the hero to kill someone who wronged him and the subsequent coverage, a man who “can’t say he approves of this Batman”  hears a scream and goes to help, something he wouldn’t have done had he not been reading about Batman at that instant; however, the panel ends, “nobody is hurt badly enough for this to make the news,” (90).  Stories are dictated by ratings which brings money, the only thing television is about—i.e. attracting more watchers—and its only aim make public discourse impossible.  In this regard, Miller delivers an outstanding critique of media bias that is up there with media theorist Neil Postman in effectively denouncing the over-simplification and dumbing-down of important issues that is televised journalism, the way as a culture, America gets its information.

This also extends to one of the two major conflicts, between Batman and his archenemy, the Joker, With the Joker, when Batman went away, the Man Who Laughs was unable to deal and wound up catatonic.  But with Batman’s reemergence, which he learned about when overhearing a nearby television, the Joker snaps back to reality, well, his version of it anyway, suggesting that without Batman, the Joker does not exist.  He then goes on a talk show that is clearly a stand in for Letterman, mimicking the program so ironic that nothing can be taken seriously.  The only one who is sincere here is the Joker, who tells the audience during recording that he’s “going to kill everyone in this room,” eliciting Dave’s sardonic reply, “now that’s darn rude,” (126).  No one takes any of it seriously—why would they—and the Joker makes it happen, first making out with an almost-Dr. Ruth to death and then laugh-gassing everyone else.  The Joker is all about TV, practically everything he does is to swing public opinion. 

The other major conflict, between Batman and his nemesis Superman, grows out of a similar critique this time focusing in on political leaders/issues.  Superman diverts a USSR nuclear attack by deflecting the missile into the dessert, which everyone thinks harmless.  Um, no, it was not.  Technology goes haywire—planes fly into buildings, cars stop running, TV broadcasts cut out, etc.—and what’s worse is the sky is covered in ash and smoke veiling the planet in an artificial night that accompanies your standard rioting/mass hysteria all resulting in a post-apocalyptic type world.  But Batman is there to put it right until federal puppet Superman returns under government mandate to stop Batman.  The resulting showdown is epic and as good as comic books get.

This is the super hero deconstructed and it is genius in almost everyway.  If you haven’t read it, shell out the $15 and prepare yourself for a literary masterpiece.  Gotham awaits.

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